Friday, 30 January 2009

Church History 1: The Church of Ireland, early beginnings

Patrick Comerford

Part 1: Doing Church History

1, Church History, an introduction:

Many of you may wonder about the hows and whys of Church History, and where it fits into any programme of theological, spiritual and liturgical training.

But before we even begin looking at Church History, let me begin by challenging some of our understandings of history.

Learning lessons from the legacy:

Is this economic crisis in Ireland an historic moment for us, socially, politically or economically?

Was the papacy of Pope John Paul II historic? Did Bertie Aherne make an historic contribution to Irish politics?

It may be too soon, too judge this, it be too early. I know a mediaeval historian who says that everything that happened after 1600 is politics and current affairs

What a later generation may describe as historic may not be what we see as momentous now may not be seen as historic by a later generation.

Group work:

In your groups discuss and name:

● 2 important people in history;
● 2 important events in history.


There are fashions in history. Today the fashionable studies include the history of sport, clothing, and local and family history studies. But a generation ago the fashion in history was for biographies and battles, generals and Prime Ministers. A century ago, peerages and genealogies of the landed gentry were big sellers. How many of you have dusted down your copy of Burke’s or Debrett’s lately?

Who knows what events today are shaping the future and will be regarded by future generations, therefore, as historic? History is not fixed, something we can objectively set out, and that will always remain so.

Are any of you Dr Who fans? In one episode in a recent series, Dr Who was visiting Victorian Cardiff. But what we see as important in Victorian days was not seen as such by Victorians, and future generations may have their own priorities.

We cannot all travel in the same Tardis. We construct our histories out of what we think was important in the past. Our priorities today are reflected in the facts we collect, how we prioritise and emphasise them, and even by what we accept on the one hand as fact, and what, on the other hand, we question, and more so by what we decide to collect and what we decide not to use at all in telling about the past.

Compare a biography of Winston Churchill and a biography of David Beckham. What would a biography of Churchill be like if it concentrated only on his clothes, his hairstyle or lack of hairstyle, and his sporting interests, and drew on interviews with his cigar suppliers and former neighbours?

Our judgment of Churchill has been different since the popular outburst of public sentiment following his death than the judgment passed on him by the electorate in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Those voters had a different idea of how history might judge Churchill.

It may be that historians in 200 years time decide that the great liberator of Eastern Europe or the unifier of modern Europe was not Pope John Paul II or Mikhail Gorbachev. They may have different priorities. Could it have been sport – the UEFA championships, the European Championships or the Moscow Olympics of 1980 – that did more to make Eastern Europeans more aware of the West, to open their demands, to give them a spirited approach to demanding liberation and European Union?

Who knows?

In the past we men have underplayed the importance women have played in history. Historians who have been educated in middle class schools continue to underplay the importance of sport and popular culture in transforming the everyday lives of individuals, families, communities and societies. If I sound a little absurd, remember your own background and conditioning, and remember that in 1969 war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras at a football match and 5,000 people were killed in the four-day “football war.”

Because of the conditioning of our family backgrounds and schooling, many of us think history is all about dates and battles, kings and generals. Is there anyone in this room who does not know the significance of these dates: 1014, 1066, 1662, 1690, 1798, 1916, 1927, 1945, 2008?

Is there anybody who does not know the historical significance of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Napoleon, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Padraic Pearse, Wallace Simpson, Churchill, Stalin?

We find it more difficult when it come to counting in memorable moments in history events such as the death of Socrates, or when it comes to counting among the great figures in history people who gave us ideas (Plato, Aristotle, Luther, even Marx), or people who wrote great works (Aristophanes, Cervantes, Shakespeare), or were great artists and composers (Rembrandt, Mozart, Picasso).

How many of the two people in history you named were drawn from the English-speaking world. Think again of what you said in your small groups.

And so if Pope Paul II is going to be remembered in history it may be as a figure of authority, a Pope, a man who exercised authority, but not for his ideas, his theology or his spirituality.

What lessons can we draw from this?

History shapes our memories; and memories shape our sense of history. This is important for how we see ourselves today, as products of our past. And it is important for how our neighbours see us as perpetuating that legacy from the past.

Archbishop Rowan Williams .... asks cogent questions about Church history

2, Why do Church history?

Why should we study Church history in places or on course such as this? The simple answer that is usually is that we learn lessons from the past.

Woody Allen has asked: Why does history keep on repeating itself? He says its because people refuse to listen the first time round.

Quite a lot of us refuse to listen not so much to history, but to the presentation of history the first time round, particularly if it is presented in a dull and boring, pedantic and condescending way. And it’s dull and boring if it’s only about dates and battles, kings and generals, a chronology listing merely dates and names, without relevance to the present.

No! History is about how we have been shaped and how we are moving into the future. History is about a legacy. And if we don’t learn from the lessons, we can’t own the good and say goodbye to the past.

In his book on Church history – Why study the past? The quest for the historical church – Archbishop Rowan Williams argues cogently that Church history deepens on our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our present problems.

The Church depends in many areas on an understanding of its history. And so Church history is used by theologians not just to prove arguments but to clarify what we are as human beings.

Is that how you have perceived church history in the past?

Is your understanding of church history relevant to your understanding of theology?

Is your understanding of church history relevant to today’s Church?

3, Church History and theology:

I love looking back on those times I have lived close to the sea. Perhaps, it’s because my grandmother was brought up beside the sea in Portrane. I once lived near the beach at Rosslare, and in recent years have managed to spend some valuable time in Achill, in Kilmuckridge, and by the sea in Greece.

If you live by a coast or a beach, you know that lots of flotsam and jetsam are washed up every day. Sometimes this includes living creatures, such as seal pups, baby dolphins, or even the occasional beached whale.

I have joked in the past that the approach of the dogmatic theologian to the beached whale or baby dolphin might be to see how it breathes, how its heart beats, whether the main part of the tail is three-in-one or one-in-three, to carve it up to find and examine its component parts, and finally express surprise that it is dead.

The approach of the church historian, on the other hand, might follow this course: ask where it came from; ask which tide brought it in; ask whether this tide was influenced by the phases of the moon; ask is it like previous whales or dolphins seen on this, or neighbouring, beaches; and while going to the county library to find the cuttings for the last sighting of one these in 1927, the creature heaves a last sigh and dies.

If they had both co-operated, they might have first pushed the creature back into the sea, and it might have lived, and we might have more of an idea of why it lives.

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Let me share some examples:

Church history and doctrine: Here, church history helps us understand the way doctrine has developed. For example, you may have to deal with the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the construction of liturgy in the past that has led to our present liturgical experiences.

Church history and art: How can you understand the great works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt, the collections in the Uffizi in Florence, the icons in Orthodox history, or the architecture of great cathedrals and churches that have survived the centuries without understanding what the artist or architect was trying to say, and, from the other perspective, how can we appreciate these works without developing an awareness of how they have shaped our images of God and of Biblical figures, or formed culturally our expectations of sacred space?

Church history and spirituality: Here, Church history opens for us and makes accessible the writings of the Desert Fathers; the development of monasticism and its links with Egypt; how early Irish monasticism, in a very short time, drew on the tradition of the East – from Pachomius, Basil and Anthony, and then spread to Europe. But how many of us know how to own much of this as Anglicans? History and spirituality have often come together for me in my pilgrimage or retreats in a monastery, such as Glenstal, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai or Patmos. But think of the opportunities of being enriched spiritually and in the tradition of the early Church by going on a retreat in Orlagh with the Augustinians, or in Rostrevor or Glenstal with the Benedictines.

Church history and our essential understanding of salvation: Much of what passes as a Protestant understanding of salvation is Augustinian. It is not so much based on Scripture as on an Augustinian reading of Scripture. And therefore it is Western as opposed to Eastern.

In the East, there is not the same emphasis on original sin, and therefore there is not the same emphasis on the need for personal salvation, nor are the same questions asked about justification. In the East, salvation is to be found in the church, and therefore people associate salvation with going to Church and taking part in the liturgy. In that sense, Western Protestant and Catholic questions about sin and salvation have more in common with each other than we ever admit or accept. Church history helps us to understand that.

Church history teaches us that the Reformation was not a unique event. There were other Reforming movements. It begs questions such as why Francis of Assisi was kept in the church, but Luther was expelled?

Church history and the other arts: The monastery played a crucial role in the development of western understandings of music, through chant and organ. In literature, Chaucer was the first person to write in modern English, and Dante was the first person to write in modern Italian. But who can separate these developments in western understanding from the spiritual and theological directions of their work?

The importance of Florence and the flowering of the Renaissance are essentially grasped through understanding the patronage of the Church. Much popular understanding today of about Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is derived not from the Gospel narratives but from Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. But art is important in understanding theology. Think of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

When it comes to music, church history and theology, think of Mozart and Bach. Bach died in 1750, but nobody realised then what historical significance he would have – his Saint Matthew Passion was not performed until 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted it in Berlin. Yet Bach is an example of how we can theology through music: he inscribed the scores of his religious music with the letters JJ (Jesu, juva, Jesus help) at the beginning, and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the glory) at the end.

4, Church history and our Christian neighbours:

History is read differently by different Christian communities.

The Presbyterian memory of the Church of Ireland is that we marginalised them at the Caroline Restoration in 1660, that we turfed them out of their churches in the north-east, and that we kept all the church endowments for ourselves.

Yet the Presbyterian memory of being the true Ulster-Scots is untrue.

When it comes to Roman Catholic memory, we’re often seen as a branch of the Church of England, or remembered for the Penal Laws and the landlords and tithes, and we are linked with their sense of disinheritance.

Catholics and Presbyterians together believe that they were the only ones to take part in the 1798 Rising.

Methodists too believe in their memories that we turfed them out of the Church.

Think of Catholic memory of souperism and the Achill and Ventry missions. How can Nangle and mission in Achill be seen in a positive light today?

5, Church history and interfaith dialogue:

Church history reminds us that Byzantium was the longest-lasting Christian kingdom, that what we call Turkey was a Christian country – the Christian country – for longer than it has been a Muslim country.

On the other hand, Spain was a Muslim country for longer than it has been regarded as a Christian country.

And so, it is surprising the Carmelite spirituality of John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila has echoes of Sufi spirituality?

We can deal properly with out neigbours if we first accept them as our neighbours. And Church history teaches that Muslims and Turks have always been part of Europe, ever since we constructed the concept of Europe.

6, Church history and our understanding of the political world:

Christianity played a key, formative role in shaping European cultural identity. For too long, there was a coincidence of Europe and Christendom.

Church history explains the development of principles such as the just war theory.

In terms of political science, church history like no other branch of history allows us to compare Savonarola (1498) with Machiavelli. Was Savanarola essentially a political opportunist or a religious fanatic?

In terms of imperialist expansion, Church history helps to explain a great deal of what was happening in Europe for the last 500 years or so, and its legacy. Just think of a movie such as The Mission, and how the Pope carved up Latin America between Portugal and Spain.

The churches played a key role in shaping North America. Think of how they shaped Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia, or Quaker Pennsylvania.

The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church at its worst as against a monarchy that was propped up by the churches teaching and preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

We cannot understand evangelicalism without taking account of its political impulses, including demands to end the slave trade, slavery, and child labour.

We understand Karl Marx in a new light when we understand that his Jewish parents converted to Christianity during his childhood.

When it comes to assessing the last eight years of American history, will it be possible for historians to understand the Bush presidency without understanding the religious beliefs of his closest advisers and their apocalyptic theology? But I’ll leave that for later historians.

7, Summary:

Bad church history is merely a summary of dates and domineering figures. Good church history relates to the rest of theology, and to the rest of society. If we don’t do it properly, people will think we’re irrelevant, or covering up.

And because we’ve done it so badly in the past, I think, explains in part the reason why many people are attracted to The Da Vinci Code. They know it’s a novel, but at the same time many really do believe Dan Brown that the book is based on facts and on real history.

Over these two days, want you to throw aside your old ideas about history, and let’s ask searching questions about the Church of Ireland, how we were shaped, and how we got to where we are today.

Part 2: The Church of Ireland, Early beginnings

1, Introduction

Brendan Behan once crudely named which part of the anatomy of Henry VIII the Church of England had been founded on. And many of your neighbours probably persistent in the popular misperception that the Church of Ireland, in some way, is nothing more than a branch of the Church of England on this island.

On the other hand, historians in the Church of Ireland, in a very antiquarian approach, tried to prove that the Church of Ireland was the legitimate heir and successor to the Church of Saint Patrick and the Ancient Celtic Church of Ireland, claiming that in some way that early church had been hijacked during the Anglo-Norman invasion, and had recovered its independence at disestablishment.

The truth, of course, is always more subtle and nuanced than popular myth. Of course the Church on this island owes much to the early Celtic Church. But it is also the Church of Vikings, who gave us new dioceses centres on cities rather than monasteries, such as Dublin and Christ Church Cathedral.

These city-based dioceses often felt closer to Canterbury than their Celtic neighbours, even before the Anglo-Norman invasion.

With the Anglo-Norman invasion came French-speaking bishops and clergy, and the Church benefitted from the closer links created not onl6y with the Church in England but with the Church in Continental Europe.

Yet we persisted in insisting on our Celtic inheritance, and the Preamble and Declaration adopted by the General Convention of the Church of Ireland in 1870 as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland,” while also conceding that this same church is “a reformed and Protestant Church.”

The Reformation dates back to the invention of printing in the 1450s. In less than half a century no less than 100 editions of the Bible published. None of this was controlled by the Church.

At same time, the Church was losing control of minds and of states. This was the time when Erasmus was thinking and writing in Rotterdam (1466-1536). In France, the king had secured right in 1516 to make the appointment to all senior posts in the Church.

Similar control over Church appointments was exercised by kings in Scotland and England, including appointing some bishoprics from 15th century. It was the same too with the Holy Roman Emperors in Germany.

Was there one single cause of the Reformations? Was it simply about the sale of indulgences to help build Saint Peter’s in Rome. Or was it about the monarch having a veto or final say in Church appointments? Or was it about freeing the thinking of individuals from the controls and authority of the past?.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, nailed his 95 theses to door of Wittenberg Cathedral. One Lutheran theologian who later became a Roman Catholic, playfully described them as the first theological Halloween prank. But we should remember that they were conservative, and that they did not attack any of the central dogmas taught from Rome.

But what did Luther and his followers stand for or against? They were concerned about:

● The all-pervading power of the Pope;
●The sale of religious rites and offices;
● The need to provide the Bible in the common language in every pulpit;
● The liturgy simplified and made more accessible and understandable;
● Clerical celibacy and marriage; and
● Communion in both kinds – but, once again, we should note that this was not an attack on the theology of Eucharist.

Much of Luther’s thinking was theologically conservative. Who knows any Roman Catholic today who would want the Pope to exercise temporal power? Hopefully we would all oppose simony. All have traditions accept that the Bible readings and preaching should be in our own language. In all churches, the liturgy has been greatly simplified and brought out towards the people. Suggesting that the clergy should be allowed to marry is no longer shocking even among Roman Catholics. And some of you will have noticed how often Roman Catholics receive Holy Communion in both kinds at weddings, retreats and on other occasions.

Luther believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; consubstantiation was still a valid theological opinion – transubstantiation was not declared a dogma until Trent, and consubstantiation is closer to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

So it is fair to say that Luther saw himself not as founding a new church but as reforming the Church. His under-girding doctrine was justification by faith.

The other key figures in the Reformation included John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in France and Switzerland, and Thomas Cranmer in England.

Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was instrumental in the Anglican reformation

2, The Anglican Reformation

In England, Thomas Cranmer, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury with Papal approval, granted Henry VIII the divorce from Catherine of Aragon he so desperately sought in 1533, and Henry then married the pregnant Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII already controlled the Church of England. The Pope’s predicament centred not on Henry’s divorce, but on the fact that the Pope was a prisoner of the Emperor Charles V, Catherine of Aragon’s nephew.

A year later, the Act of Supremacy was passed in 1534.

So in England, the reformation did not begin until after Henry VIII’s divorce, and the Anglican Reformation began not with doctrinal or liturgical changes, but with the dissolution of the monastic houses between 1536 and 1539. At that time, most of the clergy were illiterate. Many of the monasteries were corrupt, having amassed landed estates, privilege and power, and some may have become questionable in their lifestyles. But many of the monastic houses provided what we would now regard as basic hospitals and sheltered housing.

On the surface, little appeared to have changed during the reign of Henry VIII, apart from an English Bible placed being in every English parish church.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and the accession of his son, Edward VI, still a boy, gave a freer hand to the reformers. Cranmer introduced his first Prayer Book in 1549, but this was still quite Catholic, and still used the term Mass.

The Reforms during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) included:

● A new and simplified liturgy was introduced, using the vernacular;
● The doctrine of the Eucharist combined both Catholic and Reformed teaching, expresses in the words of the liturgy: “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ …” and then: “Take and eat this in remembrance …”
● A new statement of doctrine (the 39 Articles);
● Churches were stripped of images and stone altars;
● All ceremonies were forbidden apart from those in the Book of Common Prayer.

3, The Reformation in Ireland

Meanwhile, what was happening in Ireland?

In 1536, the Irish Parliament approved the Royal Supremacy over the Church in Ireland. All of the bishops in the House of Lords accepted the change.

The dissolution of the monasteries was slow. The final list was not issued until 1539. Indeed, rather than being a reform measure needed by the Church, it appeared more like an act that pandered to the avarice of the landed aristocracy: for example, the Earl of Ormond was granted the lands of Jerpoint, Kells and Kilcooley.

And yet, many monasteries continued in places like Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal into the 17th century, and there were exceptions – in Christ Church, Dublin, which was an Augustinian foundation, the prior and the friars became the dean and the chapter of the cathedral.

Reforms could be said to have had the whole-hearted support of the bishops. Archbishop Browne of Dublin, a former Augustinian friar who had been appointed Archbishop by Cardinal Wolsey, publicly burned images and relics. The other strong advocate of the reformation was Bishop Staples of Meath. The rest of the bishops continued on as before, as bishops of the church with strong state links, but not particularly worried one way or the other about the Reformation, although a growing number of bishops and clergy availed of the opportunity to marry.

The first book to be printed in Ireland in 1551 was the Book of Common Prayer – but notice that this was two years after it was introduced in England – and it was first used in Christ Church Cathedral on Easter Day 1551.

It was only than that Archbishop Dowdall of Armagh left the country rather than approve the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the most controversial figures of the day among the bishops was John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, who was jailed in England on several occasions under Henry VIII for his extreme Protestant views, but who appears to have been chosen personally as bishop by the boy king Edward VI.

His clergy opposed the introduction of the new prayer book, and Bales proved to be a controversialist. When Edward died 1553 shortly after Bale’s consecration, Mary came to power. In the procession in Kilkenny City to mark her accession, Bale refused to wear a mitre and or carry a crozier, and so they were carried forcibly in front of him. He soon fled to Dublin and from there to Switzerland.

Mary was committed to reversing the reforms. But is often forgotten this Catholic monarch also introduced the idea of plantation into Ireland. Queen’s County (now Laois) and Maryborough (Portlaoise) took their name from her; while King’s County (Offaly) was named after Spanish Catholic co-monarch, Philip. But in reversing most of the changes introduced under Henry VIII and Elizabeth, Mary did not abolish the Royal Supremacy, which only later was seen as a cornerstone of the Reformation but which was then normal throughout Europe, Catholic and Protestant.

Mary deprived all the married clergy of their Church office, including Archbishop Browne and the Bishops of Meath, Kildare, Leighlin and Limerick – although none was brought to court for heresy, and the systematic persecutions associated in England with her as “Bloody Mary” did not take place in Ireland..

Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I.

In 1560, the Act of Religious Uniformity was passed, and the Act of Supremacy was re-enacted. At this stage, only two bishops – Meath and Kildare – refused to conform and were deprived.

In 1566, all the Irish clergy were ordered to subscribe to a set of 12 Articles, and few refused, so that there was no real breach in continuity between the bishops and clergy of the pre-Reformation Church in Ireland and the post-Reformation Church of Ireland. The laity, for the time being, simply went along with their landlords, bishops and clergy. Certainly, on the eastern seaboard, the majority of people accepted the state of affairs in the Church: on one particular Sunday, there were over 400 communicants in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and over 200 in Drogheda.

The cracks only begin to show later. Peter White, who was Dean of Waterford from 1565, was only deprived of that in 1570 for joining the Church of Rome.

Many of the bishops of the time are accepted as standing in the line of bishops by both churches. There is the famous case of Miler Magrath, who arrived in Ireland in 1566 as the Pope’s approved Bishop of Down and Connor, and then subsequently become the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Cashel. But there is also the case of Alexander Devereux, a former abbot who is seen in both traditions as being the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland Bishop of Ferns; and there was the Dominican friar who attended the Council of Trent while he was the Church of Ireland Bishop of Achonry.

It was not until 1582 that a separate Roman Catholic bishop appointed for Ireland. But he only lived in Kilkenny for a year from 1583 to 1584, and then went back to the Continent.

The first Irish version of the Book of Common Prayer was not produced until the 1580s, and the first Bible in Irish was not published not until 1603. There were great Irish scholars in the Church of Ireland such as Nehemiah Donnellan and William O’Donnell, who were successive Archbishops of Tuam. But did Irish publications come too late?

They certainly were too late for the great reformer, Adam Loftus, who was the first chancellor of TCD (1592), then Archbishop of Armagh (1563-1567) and Archbishop of Dublin (1567-1605). Loftus saw clearly that Ireland could never be made Protestant simply by bringing it under English rule. He saw that more was needed than the secular power or education – and he saw that need as being the clear teaching of the Gospel.

Unfortunately for the Church of Ireland, too many of the clergy and bishops were ill-equipped to do this, and were more interested in their careers, their comforts and their wealth.

But there were exceptions. Among those exceptions was Archbishop James Ussher, a scholar of European reputation. He saved the Book of Kells and he dated the creation to 4004 BC. William Bedell, Bishop of Kilmore would only appoint Irish-speakers to parishes, held Irish-language services, and translated both prayers and the Old Testament.

But by then there had been a resurgence in popular Catholicism, while Presbyterianism was making major inroads in Ulster from neighbouring Scotland.

4, Cromwell, the Restoration and the Boyne

The 1641 Rebellion had a traumatic impact on the Church of Ireland. The victims included Bedell. Churches were taken over, and in Kilkenny, for example, David Rothe moved into Saint Canice’s Cathedral, the communion silver was stolen, and in an act of vandalism the cathedral records were burned.

Later, with Cromwell’s arrival, the Church of Ireland was virtually forced underground, the Book of Common Prayer was banned, most of the clergy were dismissed from their parishes, and – with few exceptions – the bishops forced out of the dioceses.

It is only in the post-Cromwellian period that the Church of Ireland as we know it today took its real shape.

Next: The Church of Ireland, how we got to where we are today.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture was delivered at the Lay Ministry training course on Friday 30 January 2009.